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Sharon Passes Plan, but Pays Political Price

TEL AVIV — After weeks of struggle, Prime Minister Sharon finally and decisively launched his government this week toward his goal of disengaging from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. After considering the price paid and still to be paid — Sharon’s coalition in tatters, his Knesset majority gone, parties in turmoil, the plan nearly gutted, and this before the first brick is moved — many Israelis were left to wonder when or even if he will manage to reach the goal itself.

The initial step was clear-cut. There was a June 8 Cabinet vote, decided 2-to-1 in Sharon’s favor. There is now an official plan, replete with appendices and detailed explanations. “I know many people have doubts, but I’m telling you — we’re entering a new era,” Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, told the Forward.

Following a last-minute compromise brokered by Immigratio Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni — who emerged from the process a newly rising star — the plan no longer refers explicitly to dismantling settlements. Instead, it now speaks broadly of “evacuation,” leaving the details to future Cabinet votes. “With the completion of the move by 2005 in the areas that are to be evacuated, in the land area of the Gaza Strip there will be no permanent Israeli military presence,” the plan says.

Still, the mere adoption of the overall plan convinced Washington, along with much of Europe and even parts of the Arab world, that Sharon means business.

Many of Sharon’s right-wing opponents felt the same way, despite all his efforts to soothe them. One key coalition partner, the right-wing National Union party, was effectively booted from Sharon’s Cabinet on the eve of the vote in order to guarantee him a majority, leading to a Keystone Kops scene in which a Cabinet minister hid from government officials to avoid being served his walking papers.

Another key coalition partner, the National Religious Party, was on the verge of schism following the vote, bitterly divided over whether or not to remain in the government. The party’s chairman, Housing Minister Effi Eitam, and his chief ally, Deputy Minister Yitzhak Levy, angrily resigned from the Cabinet after the party’s rabbinic mentors, former chief rabbis Mordechai Eliahu and Avraham Shapira, banned any dismantling of settlements. The party’s other four Knesset members, on the other hand, decided to stay put for at least three months, hoping to stall or derail the plan from within. Each faction accused the other of betraying the party’s voters. The voters themselves seemed unsure who was right.

Whatever its effect on the religious party, the Eitam and Levy resignations had a dramatic impact on Sharon: His government no longer enjoys a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. He is now dependent on the so-called safety net promised by the Labor — which has vowed to back his initiative while remaining in opposition — and on his ability to control his critics inside his own Likud. The next few weeks, until the Knesset adjourns for its summer recess, will be very long ones for the prime minister.

But while Sharon may have a hard time governing, his opponents won’t find it easy to bring him down. Under current election laws, a no-confidence vote to topple a prime minister cannot pass unless at least 61 lawmakers line up behind another member of Knesset to replace him. Sharon’s rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has little hope of garnering such support anytime soon. The political stalemate seems to be in Sharon’s favor, but it cannot last long.

The executive branches, for their part, are taking the Cabinet decision as a green light to begin the planning phase of the disengagement. The army had previously been tight-lipped about its planning and preparations. Now that there is a government decision, however unspecific, preparatory work can begin in earnest.

The problems in carrying out the actual withdrawal — which, according to the decision, must be ratified in a separate Cabinet vote later on — are huge. The last time such a withdrawal from settlements was attempted, in Sinai in 1982, the army had to contend with a relatively small number of settlers and protesters. But that action was part of a hugely popular, formal peace agreement with Egypt, then Israel’s most formidable enemy.

This time, unless circumstances shift dramatically, there will be no agreement. Egypt has been trying for months to broker a deal committing Palestinian organizations to tacit cooperation, allowing Israel to withdraw in an orderly fashion and to keep the peace in Gaza afterward. Militant Islamic groups such as Hamas have refused so far to endorse such a deal, however, and Israeli security officials believe they will do their worst to present the Israeli withdrawal as a forced retreat by staging terrorist attacks and shelling the settlements.

Still, as a senior military source told the Forward, the Palestinians might be the least of the army’s problems.

The upcoming disengagement, unlike the peace with Egypt, is the focus of a bitterly divisive national debate. Dismantling settlements may face not only physical resistance from settlers and their supporters, but also passive resistance from soldiers. “We may face the danger of rabbis issuing edicts, telling religious soldiers to disobey evacuation orders,” the military source said.

No less daunting, officials say, is the cost of relocating and compensating the settlers — nearly 7,000 in Gaza alone — who will be forced from their homes. No plans exist for paying the multibillion-dollar tab. Sharon’s aides have indicated in the past that they expect the Bush administration to step in. But the administration, while totally committed to the Sharon plan, may not be there by the time it is implemented. And if Bush is re-elected, he may have other priorities after November.

All this is still a long way ahead. In the near term, the political turmoil is bound to get worse in the coming months, leading to increasingly bizarre scenes. One such scene was the firing by Sharon of the two National Union ministers, Benny Elon and Avigdor Lieberman. They were booted for the sole reason that Sharon needed a Cabinet majority for disengagement, raising constitutional questions even among liberals as to Sharon’s authority to fire at will.

Even odder was the ensuing game of hide-and-seek when Elon spent a long weekend hiding from Sharon’s envoys so as to avoid being handed his dismissal letter. When Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ruled that a minister may be dismissed by phone, Elon — who remained available to the media even as he hid from government officials — said he couldn’t be sure the caller purporting to fire him was really Sharon. “I thought perhaps this was Eli Yatzpan,” Elon said, referring to a popular stand-up comic known for his wicked impressions of Sharon.

For all the uncertainties, one thing was clear: Thirty-seven years to the day after Israel seized Gaza in the 1967 war, a Sharon-led government formally declared that Gaza would soon be devoid of Israeli residents. A year ago, this would have seemed as unlikely as the current odds that Sharon will carry out his plan.

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